NASA is expected to launch the space shuttle Endeavour on Monday, May 16. After that, only one flight remains in the shuttle program; Atlantis heads for the International Space Station (ISS) in July. The Obama Administration’s current space policy calls for the development of private industry solutions to replace the shuttle system for hauling crew and cargo to the ISS. Until these solutions are developed, the hauling job will fall to Russia. Their reliable Soyuz capsules will continue to be available for transportation in the short term, at premium prices.
Note: this article was also published on the Planetary Society blog on 5-13-11.
But what about the long term? Most U.S. policymakers have no desire to outsource the task permanently. In 2008, NASA introduced the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program to facilitate the development of private solutions for transporting crew and cargo to the ISS. The program uses funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (more commonly known as the economic stimulus program).
The crew component is called the Commercial Crew Development program, abbreviated CCDev. CCDev had two funding award phases, one round in 2010, and a second in 2011. To simplify the CCDev program, private companies were asked to submit proposals on how they could get humans to the ISS and back home safely. CCDev Phase 1 funds totaled $50 million, and an additional $270 million was awarded for Phase 2.
I thought it would be interesting to look at each company that received funding in either CCDev phase, and take a close look at its proposed solutions.
Earning $110 million in total, Boeing is the heavy hitter of the CCDev group, winning large amounts of funding in both phases. Boeing’s plan involves their CST-100, a seven-seater capsule that is roomier than the Apollo lunar capsules. In CCDev Phase 2, Boeing expanded on their original concept by adding room for cargo storage. The capsule is reusable up to ten times, and has a detachable service module, making it similar to an Apollo craft.
Like Boeing, The Sierra Nevada Corporation also won funds during both rounds, and comes in second for overall funding at $100 million. Also like Boeing, their Phase 1 and 2 proposals were complementary and focused on a space plane called the Dream Chaser, a craft that is conceptually similar to a space shuttle. The plane would be strapped to an Atlas V rocket and fly into orbit vertically, carrying seven people and cargo to the ISS. Like the space shuttle, it would fly home and land on a runway like a traditional plane.
Third place funding recipient Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) missed out on CCDev round one, but nabbed $75 million in round two. Full disclosure: SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk is a current board member of the Planetary Society. They are no newcomers to the private space race. Their Falcon series rocket and Dragon Capsule, which is capable of carrying seven astronauts to the ISS, was tested December 8, 2010, when it completed two full Earth orbits before successfully splashing down into the Pacific ocean. SpaceX is the only private company to have accomplished this feat to date. SpaceX’s CCDev Phase 2 funding was for an advanced launch abort system to be installed on their Falcon rocket.
Founded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin won CCDev funds in both rounds, totalling $25.7 million. Phase 1 focused mainly on the development of a risk-reduction system for a proposed crew vehicle, including a launch abort system that can quickly separate a crew capsule from a malfunctioning rocket. In Phase 2, Blue Origin began to develop the vehicle, now tentatively named the Crew Transportation System (CTS). The CTS can ferry seven people to the ISS, stick around for 210 days as an emergency landing pod, and return to Earth via land instead of an ocean splashdown, drastically reducing recovery costs.
Also earning funding in CCDev round one was the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that was approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2006, despite antitrust allegations from SpaceX and other companies. ULA, which has experience with commercial rocket launches, investigated the possibility of modifying a Delta V transport rocket to haul crew into orbit. A study by the U.S. Air Force’s Aerospace Corporation, a private research and development group, found the idea to be feasible, so funding of $6.7 million was awarded to develop an Emergency Detection System (EDS) that would be a first step toward making Delta V rockets human-capable. ULA applied for more funds in round two to continue this work, but was not selected.
The last (and least?) of the CCDev recipients was Paragon Space Development, which received $1.4 million during round one for their Commercial Crew Transport Air Revitalization System (CCT-ARS), a life-support system designed to support a crew of seven for five days. Their website emphasizes applying CCT-ARS to NASA’s current Orion Capsule system. Paragon applied for round two funding to further develop the CCT-ARS system, but didn’t make the cut.
Let’s summarize and categorize the solutions:
Boeing’s CST-100, SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule, Blue Origin’s CTS
The shuttle emulator:
Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser
The supporting cast:
ULA’s EDS, Paragon’s CCT-ARS
Many CCDev companies are quick to point out that their proposed solutions can do much more than haul crew and cargo to the ISS, and they may be correct. Boeing says it has advanced far beyond the original CCDev specifications. SpaceX is ready to test the Falcon 9, which will soon become the most powerful rocket in the world. Some of these companies are hinting at moon landing applications. Right now, CCDev is only intended to fill the short-term needs of the U.S. Space program. However, advocates of space exploration can only hope this is the first step towards a new era of cooperation between government space agencies and private companies.